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10 Points for South African Christians and Churches to Consider in January 2021
(‘There is a time to be quiet, and a time to speak up’ - Ecclesiastes 3:7)
“Halt! Who goes there?”
For every soldier on border patrol there comes a time when his routine and eventless tasks suddenly become real encounters with an intruder. An unusual and suspicious event sobers him up and reminds him why he is posted there, uniformed and armed. Yet before that sentinel on night patrol braces himself for confrontation it is vital that he establish ‘who is out there in the dark’ and ‘what behaviour is lawful’ between the countries he patrols. His interrogatory summons seeks to clarify such matters and determine his course of action.
Moving from this hypothetical scenario let me take up the same interrogatory question and direct it to a very current issue: Is it not time for Christians and Churches to give a respectful but firm ‘Halt! Who goes there’ to the State as it asserts itself over their Sunday congregations? I believe it is. Below I present to you a sort of check-list for soldiers of Christ who are seeking to know what boundary needs to be patrolled between the Church and the State and what behaviour is appropriate for those on either side of that line. The particular situation that has prompted this interrogation has been the South African Government’s temporary ban on all religious gatherings at the beginning of January 2021. It is claimed that such gatherings would expedite the transmission of the Covid19 flu virus. How should Churches respond to this new ban? Should they take it in-good-faith ‘lying down’ or in-better-faith ‘standing up’?
The 10 points for your serious consideration are the following:
1. A statement that most Christians have affirmed and still do is that Church communities should always obey the State unless the State commands them to do what God has prohibited, or when it prohibits something God has commanded. The words of Paul in Romans 13:1 (‘let every person be subject to the government authorities’) and the words of Peter in Acts 5:29 (‘we must obey God rather than men’) witness to both Biblical State Obedience and Biblical State Disobedience which the above principle seeks to navigate. Christians should always respect and uphold their governing authorities for the Lord’s sake but they are not called to translate that respect into unconditional obedience. As there is a time for children to disobey their parents (e.g., when they instruct them not to become Christians), so there is a time to disobey the State.
2. A separation between Church and State was implied by Christ when he said ‘Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God’ (Mark 12:17). His wise words were as radical for his day as they are for ours. Christ’s words point to a separation in people’s responsibilities between the State and their Religion. This differentiation of responsibility means that neither the Religious body nor the State has the right to command the other on matters unrelated to their sphere of responsibility. This is why the Church has no more right to command the State to elect its officials or deploy its troops than the State has to appoint pastors or regulate worship services. These two social realms are autonomous (self-governing) and have no jurisdiction over each other since their membership, policies, practices and natures are different.
3. The modus-operandi (‘mode-of-operation’) of the Church and the State is totally different. The State has a coercive and forceful manner of function while the Church has a non-coercive and persuasive one. People attend worship services freely and voluntarily, but pay their taxes compulsively and involuntarily. In the Church ‘you ought to’ is the motive, but in the State it is ‘you must’. This is why any compelling ‘must’ commands issued by the State over ecclesiastical affairs are an alien intrusion into the nature of the Church and contrary to how it functions. The government may appeal to Churches to temporarily cease congregating, but they cannot order them to do so.
4. When the State believes that the welfare of its citizens is somehow compromised by their congregating together, it does not have the right to override the autonomy of the Church and temporarily confiscated its keys. Since the Church is made up of citizens, the State may command her citizens in matters of state affairs but it may not command them in matters of religious affairs. Since our government did not criminalize the sexual choices of its individuals to prevent the transmission of HIV Aids, I believe they should not criminalize the religious freedoms of its citizens in order to prevent the transmission of Covid19. Yes, a citizen may be mandated by the State to wear a mask, but they cannot be criminalized for going to Church.
5. We must reaffirm that the primary social unit of our society is the family and that it precedes both the State and the Church in history and human experience. It is a domain that is also autonomous and should not be controlled by the State or the Church. The freedom of the family unit to choose its own language, number of children, values, beliefs etc., should be upheld by all citizens and Churches. Recognising these autonomous realms means that the State can no more dictate to Churches how they should conduct their own affairs than they can dictate to our children who they should marry or what their vocations should be. We do not accept the latter and neither should we accept the former.
6. The State in SA is increasingly encroaching upon the integrity and autonomy of both the family and the Church. Our State wants to regulate practices in nuclear families (such as child-discipline, sexual values etc.) and coerce the family to comply with its ideologies. The temporary legal banning of Church gatherings is characteristic of this trend of the State to overreach into realms not under its authority. There is much to convince us that our Government considers itself sovereign in regulating the behavior of its citizens and there is little to gainsay the conclusion that it is fast moving in the direction of state absolutism.
7. Many statutory principles and laws of the SA government give Christians every reason to question its morality and integrity, including the science it bases its practices on. If we consider our government’s policies on the beginning of human life, natural gender identity, the nature of marriage and its views on sexual ethics, the Christian in SA finds the values of its government opposed to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Biblical Churches believe that our State’s position on these basic and fundamental matters is destructive to human society and reveals an ignorance in knowing what is actually good for its citizens. The position of our government on these matters makes any form of State interference in ecclesiastical matters all the more alarming.
8. In the Covid19 pandemic, the downgrading of Church and Christian ministry is evident when the State designates them as ‘non-essential services’. Yet throughout most of human history, societies have responded to crises of far larger proportions with calls to prayer in Church buildings and have attended to the channels of communication with the Creator. Regardless of the issues of viral transmission and the wise application of ways to interrupt transmission, the temporary ban on religious gatherings imposes a secular humanistic ideology on a population of which many still believe that God can be trusted more than pharmaceutical companies. In such a critical hour the ministry of the Church is a ‘most-essential-service’ in serving the people of our land.
9. The current Government distinction between casinos, gyms, restaurants, Malls, cinemas etc. and religious gatherings is blatantly discriminatory. Gatherings unrelated to economic matters have received harsher treatment and their assemblies have been disallowed. Does not this discrimination and marginalization of the Church reveal the economic motive of many of the current regulations imposed on citizens in SA? Permitting Churches to use their own discretion and keep their doors open for ‘whosoever will’ could have persuaded us of the integrity and impartiality of these recent policies.
10. Lastly, it is to be sadly noted that too many Christians consider public Sunday gatherings a non-essential for their faith, and have been quite willing to exchange public Sunday gatherings for the more comfortable internet options at home. Cultural conveniences and the privatization of Christianity have made Christians soft and compliant to the State's advances. Too many Churches have handed over their keys to the State, even though it’s only for two weeks (or three...). But a precedent has been set and a border line has been crossed. The State now believes it has a right to those keys under circumstances it unilaterally determines. Should not such Church compliance with this ongoing State overreach be of greater concern than the overreach itself? Have the soldiers of Christ fallen asleep? Do they know that there is a border to guard and country to defend? “For the hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber” (Apostle Paul, Romans 13:11)
Dr Paul Hartwig (03/01/ 2021)